Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., on August 16, 2009.
I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
King David’s obituary is oh-so-brief and there is little pause in the story because Israel’s historian moves on just as time moves on. One writer called these two chapters the “seam” that joins the two stories of David and Solomon, his surviving son by Bathsheba. Most of the second half of David’s reign was given to the family struggle over who among David’s many sons would rule when he died. Like his father, Solomon was not the first-born and therefore was the unlikely heir apparent. So as he approached the days of his kingly rule, it became something of a mid-life issue about what he wanted. One writer described his own rise to power this way: “Okay, so now you’ve arrived at a place of some power and position. You’ve climbed Everest, so what do you want with Fuji; it’s just a change of scenery, different view. Slow down and think about this before you run off mindlessly changing jobs or cars or wives or lives out of fear of your mortality. Time to think more about significance than success. Answer the question: What do you want? What do you really want?”
As a part of my reading in preparing to preach this summer series on King David, along with other books I have on the life of King David, I reread Joseph Heller’s colorful novel on David titled, God Knows. You may better remember Joseph Heller as the author of Catch 22, the 1960’s novel that offered a cynical look at the futility of war. God Knows is a “flesh on the bone” novelist’s telling of David’s life and loves and of his great genius and his very visible human failures. Admittedly, it’s more of a historical caricature than a historical novel. But it’s what Heller does with Solomon, David’s son by Bathsheba, that’s striking. In Heller’s novel, Solomon, the man known throughout history for his great wisdom, is depicted as a foolish simpleton, one who goes about in life with clay tablets under his arm so he can write down all the colloquial wisdom he overhears in everyday conversations.
Some people collect sports memorabilia. Some collect salt and pepper shakers while others collect antique clocks from all over the world. Solomon collected wisdom. He collected everyday pearls of wisdom from every corner of the world as simple words intended to make life rich and meaningful. He was a librarian of the wisdom he overheard and scratched down on the clay tablets he carried around with him. Most of us have only seen Solomon as wise beyond his years, but Heller portrayed him as one who collected wisdom but couldn’t seem to learn from it.
Maybe to understand Heller’s point we should ask, “How else do you explain the foolishness of life all around us?” We spend more than we make. We live throwaway lives. We throw away perfectly good stuff every season only to go out and buy more stuff. We treat our friends like they were our enemies. We ignore our children and wonder why they grow up and despise us. We sit in church every week and live as if there is no God. Maybe Solomon the simpleton is Heller’s commentary on contemporary society. Maybe it could be said about us.
Despite Heller’s fictional story, there was a noble beauty about Solomon’s request in this passage. God asked him what he wanted and he responded that deep down in his heart he wanted wisdom. It was a beautiful request and God answered it. The Book of Kings chronicles a few anecdotes of Solomon’s wisdom such as what to do with the two women who both claimed to be the mother of a baby. When Solomon brashly pulled out his sword and offered to subdivide the baby giving each of them equal shares, the identity of the real mother became known. But after a few brief illustrations of his wise ruling, we are told he blew it.
Solomon brought great wealth into the kingdom and started an ambitious building program, but then he compromised Israel’s faith by making alliances through intermarriage and by introducing foreign deities to Israel. It was a peaceful pagan invasion the likes of which Israel had never seen and not at all a wise move on Solomon’s part. What’s more, his harsh policies and high taxes dressed the stage for his great kingdom to divide into two weak kingdoms shortly after his death.
Solomon’s reign marked the flowering of an artistic spirit. There was a cultural-intellectual revolution that took place during his reign. Solomon was a creative soul who put plans to many of the dreams conceived by his father. A great and wonderful temple was built for the worship of God. No expense was spared in bringing into reality one of the great marvels of the world. The people of Israel were put to work in one of the most aggressive building projects of their time, surpassed only by their memories of working for Pharaoh in Egypt.
But something was missing. There was a poverty of the soul that was startlingly absent from the opulence of Solomon’s life. In Solomon’s time, the greatness of David’s life still hung in the air as Israel enjoyed its finest days. There was peace in the land and the freedom they enjoyed is remembered until this day. But there was also foolishness stirring because while Solomon demonstrated that while he was bold in public works and building projects, he was weak in his relationship with God. He allowed the things of God to go lax. He forgot that the people needed a strong visible commitment to Yahweh as the one true God.
In Solomon’s time, he was known to have hundreds of wives, maybe even thousands. More than likely, Solomon’s marriages outside the faith were the daughters of political foes. They were either acquisitions of the bargaining that took place on their borders, or they were the blood assurances that their enemies would not have the stomach to kill their daughter’s families. Solomon demonstrated a great naÃ¯vetÃ© about dabbling with other gods that came to find a home in Solomon’s Israel. Read past the words and you realize Solomon forgot how to keep separate in his own heart the reign and rule that Yahweh demands of us in our allegiance of faith.
Solomon reminds me of a friend that I had in Houston who was caught up in the oil boom of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Those were heady days when the oil market had skyrocketed and independent wheeling and dealing could generate vast sums of money by negotiating large global oil deals. I walked into his garage one day and noticed six or seven full sets of golf clubs in large leather bags. They were all brand new and hardly scuffed at all and I asked him if he was opening a sporting goods store out of his garage. He laughed and said that he occasionally would be on the road and would stop in to visit with a client and they would go play golf and he wouldn’t have his clubs with him so he would just buy a set right on the spot even though he had several full sets at home.
It was a wild time and there was huge money for the entrepreneurs willing to play the game. My friend was just a “good old boy” from Oklahoma who had left his firefighter job back home to get into making oil deals and he had been amazingly successful. He was living a life beyond his wildest dreams. My lasting memory of him was the day I found him out by his pool talking furiously with “his people” about a deal he was trying to make on behalf of the nation of India for a few million barrels of oil out of the Gulf of Aqaba. Literally, his whole world was wrapped up in closing the deal and he was frantically trying to save himself. Ultimately he lost it all. He lost everything because he didn’t live by the wisdom Solomon could have shared with him.
In the end, even Solomon’s wisdom couldn’t save him either. Solomon spent his time and energies in acquisition and building. But he forgot to remember the simple things about God. For you see, God really asks very little from us: Fidelity, a love that is unhindered and undistracted, and a joyous response to the grace that we find so freely offered. Solomon had the unique and generous opportunity to ask anything of God. With that unlimited possibility in front of him, he asked for a heart of wisdom. If you were invited by God to ask for anything, and you knew God would grant it, what would you ask for?
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).